In the Catholic tradition, most discussion about vocations tends to be focussed on priests, brothers or nuns. It is commonly thought that the path to holiness is via poverty, chastity and obedience. As for those who get married, they should worry about the ordinary, messy stuff of life such as earning money, paying bills, changing nappies and raising kids and leave vocations and holiness to the professionals.
But isn’t marriage a sacrament?If so, could it also be seen as vocation and a source of holiness?
Pope Francis thinks so. He commented recently that marriage: “is a true and authentic vocation, as are the priesthood and the religious life. Two Christians who marry have recognized the call of the Lord in their own love story, the vocation to form one flesh and one life from two, male and female. And the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony envelops this love in the grace of God; it roots it in God himself. “(Address to the Young People of Umbria, 4/10/13)
The vocation to sacramental marriage has many dimensions. Firstly, married couples are called to mirror to each other the love Christ has for his Church (Eph 5:25). This love is self-giving and moves beyond the feelings that couples experience in their ‘honeymoon’ period. It is when the “I do” moves to “we do.” Out of this self-giving, the miracle of love becomes a miracle of life. When God gifts married couples with children another dimension of the vocation of marriage emerges, Christian parenthood. Christian parents are called to be the primary educator of their children in terms of their faith and character development. The Church at Vatican II rediscovered an ancient term to describe this dimension of marriage as the activity of a Domestic Church (Lumen Gentium, #11). Both of these dimensions of marriage are a source of holiness for married couples. They can often involve elements of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Marriage can involve an element of poverty in terms of the sacrifices needed to ensure that the material needs of a family are met. Chastity is also part of a married couples call to be faithful to each other and it is also part of any married couples approach to natural family planning to appropriately space children. Lastly, obedience is part of any good marriage in that spouses make important decisions together rather than taking an individualistic approach.
You might be thinking that this teaching sounds good in theory but if marriage is a path to holiness, then where are all the married saints?
Well the answer is the Church has proclaimed over 200 saints and blessed that were married (and there are many more unproclaimed). The holiest married couple are the Virgin Mary and St Joseph. They had an awesome mission to be the parents of Our Lord and despite the challenges they faced, they were able to respond to the abundant graces that God sent them, to prosper in their marriage and parenting.
A more recent example of a holy married couple is Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin who were beatified in 2008. They are significant because they are the first spouses in the history of the Church to be proposed for sainthood as a couple. Bl Louis (1823-1894) and Bl Zelie (1831-1877) lived in France and were married in 1858. Both wished to enter religious life before they discerned a vocation to marriage. They were blessed with nine children but only five survived their childhood. The family were heavily involved in their local parish which included daily mass attendance.
They were involved in the recently established St Vincent de Paul Society through visits to the poor. They also occasionally went on family pilgrimages to places like Lourdes and Chartes. The Domestic Church that Bl Louis and Bl Zelie established in their family helped nurture religious vocations in all of their five surviving daughters, the most famous of these was Marie-Francoise-Therese who went on to become St Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who is also a Doctor of the Church. St Therese has praised her parents by stating that “God gave me a mother and father more worthy of heaven than of earth.” Further developments since I wrote this story is that, Louis and Zelie Martin are going to be canonised in Rome on October 18th, 2015. They will be the first couple to be canonised together in the history of the Church.
The Church’s teaching on the vocation of sacramental marriage and the example of the Holy Family and the Martin family illustrate that the grace that flows from the sacrament helps ordinary people grow in holiness and achieve extraordinary things. Marriage is not a vacation from a vocation but a wonderful path to holiness for ordinary people.